The Appeal Of Pentecostalism

Why is Pentecostalism so appealing, especially to those who find themselves on the margins of society? The best answer seems to be its emphasis upon personal spiritual empowerment, through which the status of individuals is not determined by their sociological location or their intellectual ability, but by their gifting by the Holy Spirit. This radical shift in the frames of reference by which individuals are evaluated is strongly evident in the egalitarianism of Seymour's Azusa Street ecclesiology (but not, it must be emphasized, in Parham's Topeka ministry).

This is a point of no small importance. Robert Beckford, a British black Pentecostal scholar, has argued that the egalitarian phenomenon of speaking in tongues at Azusa Street signified more than any baptism in the Spirit. It was an expression of the community's commitment to a "radical social transformation" that placed it in direct continuity with the egalitarianism shown by the New Testament community of faith in the aftermath of its experience of the Holy Spirit.21 God speaks to and through all true believers. While this egalitarian ethos has been lost in many sections of Pentecostalism through the rise of various forms of elitism, it remains an ideal that challenges and attracts in about equal measure. Where the first generation of Protestants spoke of the "priesthood of all believers," the Pentecostal equivalent would be the "prophethood of all believers."22

Alongside this tendency toward egalitarianism—and possibly as its fundamental condition—Pentecostalism insists upon the universal accessibility of the divine. Experience of God is not restricted to a spiritual elite; it is not dependent on intellectual or academic excellence; nor is it something that is unattainable in the present, being postponed until a postmortem encounter with God in the heavenly realms. Like certain forms of Pietism or sections of the holiness tradition, Pentecos-talism accentuates the reality of this experience of God and its importance for spiritual growth and theological reflection. A "living faith" (to borrow the language of the Pietist tradition) is not about doctrinal rectitude or theological precision, but about the experience of God as a living reality in the believer's soul.

Yet this accessibility applies to the means as much as to the goal of the spiritual life. Pentecostalism uses a language and form of communication that enable it to bridge cultural gaps with great effectiveness. Walter Hollenweger, one of the most distinguished historians of the movement, points to the importance of this use of readily accessible means of communication to the success of the movement:

[Pentecostalism] is an oral religion. It is not defined by the abstract language that characterises, for instance, Presbyterians or Catholics. Pentecostalism is communicated in stories, testimonies and songs. Oral language is a much more global language than that of the universities or church denominations. Oral tradition is flexible and can adapt itself to a variety of circumstances When you become a Pentecostal, you talk about how you've been healed, or how your very life has been changed. That's something that Pentecostals talk about over and over, partly because people are interested in hearing that sort of thing. Pentecostalism today addresses the whole of life, including the thinking part. More mainline forms of Christianity address the thinking part first, and that often affects the rest of life—but not always.23

Such reflections led an earlier generation of Pentecostals to be suspicious of academic study and to wear their anti-intellectualism as a badge of honor. Yet the increasing sense of confidence within the movement has led it to become more interested in technical questions of biblical interpretation, systematic theology, and broader cultural issues. Pentecostals are increasingly aware of the potential of their tradition to deal with interpretative issues that deadlocked American Protestantism in the early twentieth century.24 It remains to be seen whether this intellectual and cultural engagement will dull Pentecostal-ism's cutting edge or increase its capacity for self-actualization in new contexts.

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